Too late in life I learned the meaning of hagiography (a biography idealizing its subject; adulatory writing about another person; writing of the lives of saints). Perhaps, I was intellectually lazy, gullible, or disinterested in looking beyond the words of any biography.
All “great” men and women try to influence how history books and films should remember them. Some are successful; some are victims of over-zealous or self-serving biographers and filmmakers. True facts are difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, especially years after an event (thus the tie to saints). Each person experiences an event from his or her perspective, and memories fade immediately after the event. Therefore, most biographies contain a great deal of fiction. This makes coloring a person’s life, either positively or negatively, rather easy and impossible to discredit. Just look at how hard Tony Blair works to polish a tarnished reputation of a lying, cheating politician.
Although there are countless examples of hagiography, three blatant examples immediately come to mind:
Revisionist histories have a done a good job of tarnishing the image of Stalin created by communist writers and filmmakers. Fine examples of non-hagiographic and object writings are those of Simon Sebag Montefiore (The Court of the Red Tsar) and Edvard Radzinsky (Stalin), who had unprecedented access to Soviet archives. Both are worth reading for anyone interested in a (more truthful) look at the Soviet Union.
I had always swallowed the Hollywood version of General George Custer...until I learned my great grandfather’s biography (Custer's Lost Officer, by Walt Cross), the “facts” surrounding his death at Little Big Horn (Custer’s Last Mistake), and the history of US Government treatment of Native Americans (endless source material, written and oral). This is one of the all-time great cases of hagiography.
I fell for the negative view spread throughout the world of Ho Chi Minh. I went to Vietnam believing the story fed to me by the Army and kept that opinion until I became interested in learning the history of US involvement in Vietnam (another vast bibliography). That led me to learn about Uncle Ho, through biographical sketches (both sides) and original source material in English, French, and German (there was a connection between East Germany and North Vietnam). Many US Government officials made many mistakes and misjudgments about Ho starting in 1918, all of which led to unnecessary death and suffering to this day.
This list of hagiographic treatment of famous people is endless. My conclusion is that “Great” men and women are usually not great; they are men and women, whose lives are more interesting and whose achievements are greater than average. The simple facts would be enough to raise them above you or me. Hagiography is a dangerous word, unknown to all but a few. Are you not happy that I have opened your eyes and, perhaps, provided the impetus to look beyond the bells and whistles?